Sunday, December 11, 2011

"A Tale of Two Cities" by Charles Dickens

A Tale of Two Cities has been immortalized by its opening ("It was the best of times...") and closing lines ("It is a far, far better thing that I do..."), and when I began reading the book for the second or third time, I doubted Dickens' renowned words would have much effect on me. So, I was surprised that by the time I reached Carton's famous last words, I was teary and emotional, overwhelmed despite my intentions otherwise.

Dickens' story of the excesses of the French Revolution comes down firmly against the revolutionaries, though it is sympathetic in the plight and exploitation of the people by the aristocrats. I would have preferred some nuance here, but Dickens is so skillful in his description and in evoking emotions of outrage (both against the rich and the mob of the people) that the novel works anyway.

For me, the greatest weakness of Dickens' story is the simplicity of his characters, who are mostly one-dimensional: either noble, true, and innocent or bitter, ruthless, and unforgiving. This dichotomy is most present in his female characters of Lucie Manette and Madame Defarge. Lucie is young, pretty and pure, and because of that, she is beloved by everyone--and I found her annoying. Like Les Miserables' Cosette, Lucie has no real personality yet is the axis on which all the other characters turn. Evil is always more interesting, and so is Madame Defarge, even though she's no less a flat character. Defarge's constant knitting serves as one of the most indelible images from the novel, and her single-minded pursuit of revenge forces the narrative forward. However, even when her backstory is revealed, she is made no more sympathetic, which is a shame.

The male characters are somewhat better, though Darnay is for the most part a mirror of his wife Lucie, and Mr. Lorry benefits only from his age and kindliness. Sydney Carton, the hero of the story, is the only real exception, as he's a man with true good and bad inside him.

Listening to the novel at a leisurely pace was a perfect way to re-enter a story I was already familiar with. Narrator Simon Prebble does an excellent job with the male and female voices and keeps the pace moving appropriately.

I enjoyed A Tale of Two Cities when I first read it as a highschooler, and it was no less enjoyable this time around.

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